Remembering a legend

By T Damu | 28 Dec 2002

Mumbai: Nani Palkhivala is no more. His eternal sleep on the Tower of Silence awakens memories in me, who, as a Tata official, has had the privilege of associating with this great man, who was regarded as not only a legend but also an institution and a phenomenon in the Indian public life and corporate circles.

As a budding junior public relations officer with the House of Tata, Mumbai, I first had the pleasure of knowing the powerful personality of Palkhivala at a press conference that I had organised on his return from the International Court of Justice, Hague, after fighting the Indo-Pak conflict case over the Kutch region in 1971.

In the more-than-two-hour-long press conference held in Bombay House’s boardroom, Pakhivala amazingly quoted large sections of relevant legal points and historical facts and figures in favour of India from a gamut of available international law books, without ever looking at any of those quoted notes or books even once during those two hours. All flowed from his memory without a hitch. This stupendous superhuman quality of the great man stunned the media giants, who are generally known for their wealth of referential knowledge and memory.

A champion of free press
As the media-relations aide from the public relations department, I religiously used to keep him fully informed about all the news and views on important and relevant matters and happenings around the county. One day, when the PTI tele-printer in my office coughed up the fateful news flash that the draconian emergency has been declared, I rushed to Palkhivala’s office with that. He became visibly angry on reading the news. He said: “No, no. This is no good. We shall move the court.”

Some time later, he called me to his office and handed over a copy of the resignation letter of the then Additional Solicitor General, Fali S Nariman, who resigned in protest against the emergency and instructed me to flash the news to all news agencies and newspapers. But he cautioned me that this news should be released in my personal capacity and not as a Tata official.

That news was published as a PTI flash. On seeing this, Palkhivala was very happy. But, within half an hour, there struck a lightning that press censorship has been introduced. This he saw as a “bad omen.” Then followed another PTI flash to “kill the news” of Nariman’s resignation. I took the message to Palkhivala, who banged his table and flared up: “No way. We will move the court and fight it out right now.”

Soon, the thunderbolt arrived in the form of another news flash that legal battles could not be fought by anyone on matter relating to the emergency. On hearing this jarring note, a crestfallen Palkhivala said: “It’s a blow to the fundamental rights of every Indian; it kills democracy.”

Upholder of constitutional rights
It was Palkhivala who was given the brief to appear on behalf of Indira Gandhi in the Supreme Court against the Allahabad High Court judgement unseating her as the prime minister. But later, after so much introspection and prolonged discussions with his senior colleagues, probably stung by the unacceptable happenings of the emergency and opposed to Gandhi’s hegemonic and autocratic style of functioning, Palkhivala decided to abandon the “brief” of the Iron Lady of India, who was the then sitting prime minister.

A brief news item was released by me on this, but again in my personal capacity and not as a Tata official under instructions from Palkhivala. It was clear that he doesn’t want to drag the Tata organisation to into such controversies. He was a man of principles, who very well knew the consequences of such a bold step that might befall him as a person and the organisations that he was associated with. But he stuck to his decision and won the admiration of all.

This brilliant jurist, statesman, taxation expert and above all a constitutional authority, who was acclaimed by C Rajagopalachary as “God’s own gift to India,” believed in freedom of expression and was a strong advocate of human rights. He had fought cases in the United Nations’ Special Tribunal, Geneva, and the International Court of Justice, Hague. He fought innumerable cases of high order, such as the cases against nationalisation of banks and for abolition of privy purses.

His brilliant arguments in lucent exuberance in the courtrooms were a source of sheer delight. The courtrooms used to be jam-packed on the days of his arguments. He was such a superb lawyer who surprised many by his refusal to accept the offers to be appointed as a Supreme Court judge and as the Attorney General in 1968. His boldness knew no bounds.

A strong proponent of the country’s constitution, it was he who pinpointed through the case of Kesavananda Bharati in the Supreme Court in 1972 that the Indian parliament cannot alter the basic structure of the constitution. At the same time, it was Palkhivala who strongly advocated the presidential system of governance as in the US. He found more substance in and need for a federal system of governance in India.

Common man’s delight
Palkhivala’s budget speeches for the public in Mumbai to enlighten the common man on the basic economic issues arising out of every union budget, until a few years ago, were one of his greatest contributions to the society. His outstanding public services and distinguished contributions to the advancement of political science were unparalleled in the history of independent India.

Describing him as “defender of constitutional liberties, champion of human rights, teacher, author and economic developer,” the Princeton University, New Jersey (USA), in 1978 conferred on him an honorary degree of doctor of laws. Lawrence University, Wisconsin, also conferred on him an honorary doctorate of law. He served as the ambassador to the US during 1977-79. He was honoured with Padma Vibhushan in 1998. Bombay University also conferred a doctorate on him.

A humane, humble, pious, friendly, warm, soft, but stern and ever-smiling personality was he, who had a long and distinguished career with the Tata group. He was a director on the boards of several leading Tata companies, including Tata Sons, Tata Industries, Tata Steel, Tata Engineering and Indian Hotels. He was on the board of trustees of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Sir Ratan Tata Trust and was also the chairman of the executive committee of Tata Consultancy Services for several years.

In addition to his deep and dedicated involvement in several corporate activities, he was also the president of the Forum of Free Enterprise, the chairman of the Leslie Sawhny Programme of Training for Democracy, the chairman of the AD Shroff Memorial Trust, and a trustee of other charitable trusts.

His quietus is a great loss not only to the Tatas but also to the whole nation.

Damu is the vice-president of Indian Hotels Company, part of the Tata group. He can be contacted at:

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